Pick Me
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Pitching a story to an editor for the first time can be a daunting process, more so when this might be your first ever byline.

The questions many student journalists might ask themselves before sending that first email range from the amount of detail you should include in the pitch to addressing the possibility of payment, and whether you will even be taken seriously without a thick portfolio to back them up.

"It cannot be denied that there is a tendency for people to use freelancers who they already trust and know, but this is a very dynamic industry, journalism, there is always room for new talent," said Tim Holmes, senior lecturer in magazine journalism at Cardiff University.

He explained that as long as the story is relevant to the publication and the journalist pitching it can convince the editor they are the right person to write it, "then I don't see any reason why a student journalist can't get work published or accepted," he said in a recent Journalism.co.uk podcast.

So how can a student journalist make their pitches stand out, and what's the best way to make the first contact?

The two types of pitching

"I think there's two ways to pitch, and it depends entirely on your personality," said Ellie Levenson, freelance writer and journalism trainer.

The first is to craft a detailed, thoughtful pitch that takes time to research and put together. "I don't do that, I much prefer the kind of down and dirty, three-line pitch which takes a couple of minutes to craft."

She said the two approaches can have similar results in the end. Spending more time crafting a pitch may mean more of them get commissioned, but the number of pitches you are able to send out with the three-line approach is much higher.

"My pitches, they're very short, they're literally what my idea is, what my hook is and why I'm the person to write them. But that probably only works if you've got a reputation or an established connection with an editor."

You don't want to be sloppy in your pitch or you'd be sloppy in your journalism.Ellie Levenson, freelance writer
For trainee journalists without a network of editors already in place, a longer introduction is needed.

Explaining why you are the right person to write the story is key – highlighting any specialist access to sources or case studies, or a special interest or experience with the subject can go a long way.

And you don't necessarily have to specify you are a student. "Why give an editor an excuse not to commission you, say you're a freelance journalist," she said.

Can you pitch coursework?

There's a lot of copy that gets written as part of a journalism degree, and a lot of interviews that never really see the light of day outside the course modules.

But those stories don't have to remain locked inside your university portfolio, especially if they are dealing with issues in your local area.

"[Local newspapers] would generally want to have something that has a local interest, has some sort of geographic involvement in the area so that would be the key," explained David Rowell, head of editorial learning and development, Johnston Press.

He said Johnston Press editors try to develop links with any university in their patch that teaches journalism.

"If you're on a course at any university or college and you got a local newspaper then it would be in your interest, I would say, to go along.

"Go and spend some time with them, make yourself known and see if you can pitch a story to them."

Confidence is key

When crafting a pitch to a particular title, researching the media outlet and identifying the right person to address should be the first steps you take.

This often means having to pick up the phone and call the main office line if enough information isn't available on the website.

Holmes said there is an understandable reluctance amongst students to phone, but "it's never as bad as you think it's going to be".

"If you do manage to get the commissioning editor's number then have your pitch ready to hand and be direct with it.

This is a really difficult thing to ask [but] I think you should include a question about what you will be paid. Tim Holmes, Cardiff University
"It may be that they then ask you to email your idea, which is fine and just make sure that your email is direct, to the point, business like," he said.

Levenson also emphasised the importance of double-checking everything you include in your pitch, even the spelling of apparently simple names which could be written in multiple ways.

"You don't want to be sloppy in your pitch or you'd be sloppy in your journalism."

Ask about the freelance rate

In an ideal world, if a student journalist's work is good enough to be published, they should be paid the usual rate for their contribution, said Holmes – but this isn't always the case.
It can sometimes come down to deciding whether the benefits of seeing your work published and having a byline outweigh the negatives of not getting paid, which could happen at the very beginning of your training.
But once you have a portfolio and a "track record", Holmes said it's a mistake to assume that you will not be paid for your stories.

"This is a really difficult thing to ask when people are starting out, [but] I think you should include a question about what you will be paid in your pitch."

Check out our podcast with more expert advice, and let us know your own tips or lessons learned from pitching mistakes in the comments below or on Twitter at @journalismnews.

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